09.28.12

Sustainable Energy Links and Resources

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:50 pm by Administrator

http://www.energytrend.com/Germany_Solar_Installation_20111004 (Summary of German Solar Energy policy)

http://www.abengoasolar.com/web/en/nuestras_plantas/plantas_en_construccion/estados_unidos/ (Site for the world’s largest Concentrated Solar Power plant being built in Arizona)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/23/solarpower.windpower (how the development of Concentrated Solar Power in North Africa could meet the energy needs of Europe)

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Residential Power Generation – A “Black Swan” for sustainable energy development

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:50 pm by Administrator

There are a number of proven technologies that individual home-owners can use to generate their own electricity so that they can reduce their dependence on the electrical utility grid (each of these topics is well covered in Wikipedia and elsewhere so I am not providing links or references).

1) Residential solar panels (photo-voltaic):  Even in higher latitude locations (such as Canada and Northern Europe) and cloudy weather conditions there is very considerable potential energy production from this source.  Germany is the world leader and now generates approximately 3% of its energy needs from photo-voltaics.  That may not sound like a lot but is the equivalent of at least 10 nuclear power plants. (update: on May 22, 2012 Germany set a new PV generation record – 22GW – approximately 50% of total German demand for a few hours that day)

2) Geothermal heat pumps: these systems circulate a fluid through pipes drilled into the earth (typically 20-30 meters down) which take advantage of the fact that the temperature at that depth is very constant throughout the year.  The earth acts as a source of heat in the winter and a heat sink in summer so that both heating and cooling functions are supported.

3) Small scale wind generators:  these are available in sizes up to 6 MW (on a windy day that would be enough to supply all the electricity required for a typical household).

So why don’t we as responsible citizens of a fragile planet take advantage of these technologies to generate our own electrical power?  If we did we could shut down our nuclear and coal-fired generating plants and live in a much more sustainable way.

The most important reason is cost.  To install any of these systems costs between $20,000 and $60,000 per household and even a combination of these systems will not guarantee that a homeowner will not have to purchase some power from the grid.  Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and there is little or no sunlight in the late afternoon and none at night.  Very honestly, the average homeowner can only expect to save $1,500-$3,000 per year at best on electricity and heating costs by installing residential power generation.  That means that the payout for any of these systems is on the order of 10-15 years or longer.

I have not been able to find reliable statistics on the length of time the average family stays in the same house.  The figures I have found suggest 6-8 years is the average and that resonates with my own personal experience.  In any case, not many people are willing to make a large discretionary capital investment in their home with a 10+ year return on investment.

The second problem is access to the grid.  The ability to take power from the grid only when needed and to sell power back into the grid when a homeowner is generating surplus power is a matter of public policy that has only been implemented in some jurisdictions.  So even if we decide to take on the large capital costs of generating our own power in many cases it just won’t work given the regulatory environment that we live in.

But guess what.  There are organizations in our society that are guaranteed to make a large profit from residential power generation.  Those are, of course, the electricity and gas utilities that service our homes.  Regardless of how many times a home changes hands it will still require heat and light.  If some of the energy required to service the home comes from the home itself that is a substantial direct benefit to the utility company for decades to come.  Any investment that a utility makes in this type of power generation will be repaid many times over during the lifespan of the home.  And the prospect of not having to build that next nuclear power plant or coal-fired generation station should be pretty attractive to these utilities.

So why don’t they just get on with it?  Well, they are in small ways in some places.  There are many utilities that provide very modest subsidies to homeowners if they install energy efficient furnaces, clothes washers, etc.  But these typically are less than 10% of the cost of the appliance and subsidies for actual residential power generation facilities with guaranteed access to the grid are not in place in most jurisdictions. There are also various government incentives which support Geothermal but these programs are inconsistent and generally inadequate in terms of convincing homeowners to invest in a largely unknown technology.

What is the hesitation to really move forward with this?  A proactive utility could fund geothermal and solar facilities for every new neighbourhood that was being developed.  Renovations and retrofit could also be done on a neighbourhood basis which would dramatically reduce the costs per household.  The end result would be a significant diversion of capital costs from mega-projects to neighbourhood development.

And maybe that is the real problem.  Utilities are probably more comfortable owning a monstrous nuclear plant or pollution-spewing coal-fired plant than they would be getting the benefit of lower energy consumption implemented in a million homes.  They can’t count residential solar panels or neighbourhood geothermal as assets on their balance sheets.  So they continue an energy development path that is illogical and costly in every sense of the word.

Only public policy changes can turn this situation around and point it in the right direction.  Germany has established a very positive regime for residential solar power.  Here in North America we can do the same thing.  We could go further and establish a similar set of incentives for neighbourhood geothermal and even neighbourhood wind.   Small changes in the regulatory environment could lead to thousands of local projects that would ultimately allow us to disconnect from the nuclear and coal-fired power stations that a large majority of citizens want shut down.

And when you think about how much additional electricity we will need when electric automobiles go mainstream the need for this particular “Black Swan” becomes even more obvious.  But that is a topic for another day.

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09.21.12

Introducing the Black Swan blog

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:08 am by Administrator

Welcome to the first entry in the “Black Swan Blog”.  This blog will be used to discuss innovative, provocative, sometimes slightly crazy concepts designed to stimulate conversations and perhaps even concrete actions that will help us move the inhabitants of “spaceship earth” to a sustainable energy future.
 
By way of brief introduction, I have been involved with energy policy development and the exploration of innovation in energy use throughout my career.  For more than 20 years I worked in the oil & gas industry where I had broad exposure to the technologies used in the development of natural gas, conventional oil, heavy oil, and tar sands resources. 
 
On many occasions I have championed the use of leading edge technologies to enable business functions.  I managed the building of one of the largest private wireless Wide Area Networks (WANs) in North America using spread spectrum technology.   The result was internet access in remote rural offices that was exactly the same as that available in head office; a great success.  But when I tried to extend this network an additional two miles in one location using a laser-based system there was a problem.  Fog from a nearby river disrupted the laser almost every morning.
 
On another network segment we had to locate a radio tower in the middle of a field far from any power line.  We installed solar panels and a wind turbine to provide the small amount of electricity required to power the site.  Initially this worked well and was seen to be a great “green” success.  But we found that on cold, windless December days the site would regularly shut down despite the fact that we had provided much more generation capacity than was required.   In the end we had to pay the local electrical utility more than $20,000 to connect the site to the regional grid.
 
These experiences have not dampened my enthusiasm for innovation or risk-taking; but I have learned that every new “best idea ever” needs to be evaluated thoroughly before it is embraced.
 
So the “Black Swan Blog” will not only describe concepts that are far off the beaten track but will make sure that the potential limitations of those concepts are clearly spelled out.
 
Why the name “Black Swan Blog?”  The “Black Swan Theory” developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb asserts that significant advances in scientific, cultural, and artistic endeavors are frequently the result of unpredictable “step-change” discoveries or unexpected behaviors on the part of inventors; these are revolutionary events rather than evolutionary incremental changes.
 
Vinod Khosla applied this theory to the problem of developing a sustainable energy future in a very thoughtful “White Paper” published in August, 2011.  He asserts that only “Black Swan” energy developments have the potential to meet the demands of the 90% of the world that aspires to a standard of living comparable to that enjoyed by many living in North America and Europe (http://khoslaventures.com/presentations/Black_Swan_8_28_11.pdf).
 
I share Mr. Khosla’s belief that only “Black Swans” can make a significant impact on energy usage patterns.  I also agree that the energy appetite of the developing world will be the biggest long-term driver for increasing energy demand.  However, in the short-term I think that there are two more important factors that will disrupt the existing supply-demand balance, especially in North America.
 
The first and most immediate problem facing the North American energy supply is our complete reliance on coal-fired electrical generation plants.  Figures published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) indicate that 45% of the electricity generated in 2010 came from these plants.  It is a proven scientific fact that emissions from many of these plants contain harmful toxins such as mercury and arsenic that are impacting the health of Americans.  The situation is essentially the same in Europe where more than 30% of electrical generation is based upon coal.
 
In December, 2011 the US Environmental Protection Agency released a new set of emissions standards that will make some of the 600+ coal-fired plants in the US obsolete (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/19/epa-coal-plants_n_1157506.html).  More than 30 of these plants, representing approximately 4% of the total electrical generation capacity in the US will be permanently shut down.  Many other plants will be out of commission for extended periods of time while upgrades to pollution controls are installed.
 
Even after spending upwards of $9 billion to reduce toxic emissions these plants will continue to be the #1 source of CO2 emissions in North America.  If we ever decide to get serious about climate change most these plants will have to be shut down.
 
The second and longer term problem will be the increasing use of electrically powered vehicles in North America.  While this is undoubtedly a positive development, the impact on our electrical generating system needs to be understood.
 
In 2011 the EIA estimated that 134 billion gallons of gasoline were consumed in the U.S. to power automobiles.  This is the equivalent of more than 4.5 trillion KW-hours of energy – more than the total electricity generated in the US today.
 
In summary, over the next 3-5 years approximately 4% of the generating capacity in the US will be permanently shut down and another larger percentage will be unavailable for significant lengths of time as coal-fired plant pollution controls are upgraded.  The entire coal-fired generation fleet is at risk because of its primary role in producing CO2 emissions.  And even a small expansion of the electrically powered vehicle fleet in North America will put a significant new load on the system.
 
These are not problems that can be overcome easily.  These are not problems that can be ignored and left for a future generation to solve.  These problems are here and now. 
 
Only “Black Swan” breakthroughs will allow us to maintain our current standard of living while enabling the developing world to continue to grow.
 

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